Still one of the worst peacetime disasters at sea, the sinking of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage in the early hours of April 15, 1912 claimed the lives of over 1,500 people. Notoriously, it was the lower Third Class passengers that suffered the most losses – around two-thirds of them perished – and the “unsinkable” liner certainly went to sea with too few lifeboats.
Though travel by sea is far safer now – though not without risk, as the recent tragedy on the Costa Concordia in Italy showed – the sinking still grips the public’s imagination, and then as now, the public wanted to know the notable names among the dead.
What follows is a list of famous people who went down with the ship.
Before the Titanic even set sail, she had to be built. For the 2,000 workers assigned to the task at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, she was the latest in a long line of huge projects and took 3,000,000 rivets to construct. It was dirty, loud and dangerous work, and safety precautions were almost non-existent. Deaths were expected, and aside from hundreds of injuries, at least a handful of people died during the construction process, in the shipyard and before the launch. These men – their names not easy to find – were arguably the first deaths on the Titanic.
John Jacob Astor IV
Of the casualties from the actual sinking, the most famous – and richest – was probably John Jacob Astor IV, a German-American millionaire who had made his fortune in real estate and was the great grandson of John Jacob Astor, founder of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Following the guidelines of women and children first, Astor IV’s wife made it to a lifeboat and survived, but Astor didn’t, and died aged 47.
Another famous – and rich – passenger who died was Benjamin Guggenheim, heir to the family’s mining business. He initially though the accident was a minor one, but when he realized the Titanic was going to sink and that rescue was unlikely, the story goes that he changed into his formal evening wear to face death. Ironically, he wasn’t even meant to be on the Titanic; he had been scheduled to sail on the Lusitania, but when that vessel needed repairs, he decided to take a trip on the newest luxury sea liner instead.
Isidor Straus was the German-born co-owner of Macy’s department store in New York, and he died alongside his wife Ida. They were last seen sitting in deck chairs on the deck, having refused to be separated in the lifeboats: they wanted to be together, no matter what (in 1997 movie Titanic, they’re shown lying together in bed as water rushes into the room). The only comfort for the grieving family was that baby grandson Stuart was due to be on the voyage too, but as he was sick he had been left in England.
Fatalities among the crew were as high as two-thirds as well, and though almost none of them were famous before the voyage, some became celebrated around the world afterwards. Jack Phillips was the senior wireless operator on board, and he was the one who sent the distress and rescue signals – the code CQD, though the new SOS was replacing it, and he relayed that too. Always under pressure to send passenger messages too, he was later blamed for not passing messages from the steamship Mesaba and the SS Californian, who had both reported icebergs and ice in the path ahead of the Titanic. Both Phillips and his colleague Harold Bride worked until the power went out and then made for safety. Phillips did not survive his in the water on his upturned lifeboat, but Bride survived.
Certainly one of the more famous people post-disaster was Ulsterman Thomas Andrews, the engineer who oversaw the construction of the Titanic. It was regular practice for designers and engineers to travel on the maiden voyage to assess the design and note problems, but Andrews was confident in “his” Titanic and considered it as finely built as possible, However, once he determined that the gash caused by striking the iceberg was more than the separate hulls could handle, he knew that it was going to sink. He stayed on board to the end, helping passengers and taking every second he could before his dream sank forever.
The Band That Played On
Perhaps the most celebrated group of victims was the band of eight musicians who played as the ship sank beneath the waves. Led by bandmaster and violinist Wallace Hartley, they sat on the freezing deck and played uplifting music to try to reassure the passengers as they took to the lifeboats. The last song they played has been disputed – it was either Nearer, My God, To Thee, or a waltz called Autumn – but either way, they all died. Around 40,000 people lined the route to Hartley’s funeral in Colne, Lancashire, and a blue plaque was placed on his house. There’s a bust of him there too, and streets, housing projects and even a local pub have been named in his honor.
Captain Edward Smith
As the law of the sea seems to dictate, Captain Edward Smith went down with his ship. Although he’d been in charge of the Titanic’s sister ship RMS Olympic during a collision with the HMS Hawke the previous year, he was vastly experienced and was given command of the Titanic. Nonetheless, Smith’s actions in the aftermath of the accident have been heavily criticized; maybe his realization that the lifeboats were not going to be enough for the passengers and crew was the fatal blow.
There are still over a hundred unidentified bodies buried at a cemetery in Nova Scotia, Canada, though as recently as 2008 one of them was finally given a name. A 100-strong team of scientists and researchers had been working for nearly a decade to solve the mystery of this young male – known to all as the “Unknown Child” – and after exhumations, DNA tests, a worldwide genealogical research, a pair of salvaged shoes from the wreck (and a mis-identification), it was announced to the world’s media that the child was Sidney Leslie Goodwin, a 19 month old boy from England.
Fictional Jack Dawson
This isn’t strictly a death from Titanic, but it’s certainly one of the most famous. The 1997 movie directed by James Cameron was a phenomenon, and was the first to break the billion dollar barrier at the box office. Until Cameron’s Avatar beat it, Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet was the biggest movie of all time. As Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, they meet and fall in love on board and go into the water together when the ship sinks. They find a door to cling onto, but it won’t handle both their weight – so Jack stays in the freezing sea, clinging on to the side – and to the tears of teenagers everywhere, he dies so that Rose may live. Titanic is in movie theaters again right now for the 100th Anniversary, but this time round you can relive the romance and the tragedy in glorious 3D.